Hand Placement and Gestures that Create a Comfortable Presence

Friends in the Park

You eat with them, communicate silently with them, learn with them, use them for emphasis when speaking, and extend yourself with them through gesture and touch.

Your hands can connect you to others and can also give away a little about yourself.  They are powerful tools indeed! 

But there are times when hand placement and hand gestures may make situations a little awkward.  And other times when your hands feel as if they are in the way – you're just not sure what to do with them.

How should you place your hands or put them to good use in certain situations?

When to Tame Your Hands

Your hands convey meaning or give emphasis to your words.  And, as mentioned above, they can also reveal a feeling you are trying to hide, like when you're nervous or afraid.

However, the continuum of gesturing with your hands ranges from barely to extreme.  It is difficult to speak with or listen to someone who is gesturing wildly - you feel as if you need to protect yourself. 

By the same token, someone who doesn't gesture at all when speaking, or has hands stuffed in pockets, is not someone you feel comfortable talking to for a length of time.

If you fit into either of these categories, it's time to take control of your hands and teach them to find a happy medium of gesturing to support the words you are speaking, and to remain calm and comfortable when you are not speaking.

Appropriate Hand Placement

Being mindful about your hands is a core direction for being etiquette-ful.  

Of course, you will want to gesture naturally to make your words more meaningful, but in situations that aren’t audience-oriented, being careful with your hands is just as important.  

When standing in a group conversation:

At the table during meals: 

  • Use your cutlery properly and your hands will be put to proper use.
  • Avoid invading the space of others by over-reaching or passing something inappropriately.
  • Do not play with utensils, your hair, the tablecloth, etc.
  • There is no need to rearrange table settings or pick something off the floor during the meal.   

In a meeting:

  • Keep your hands on the table or in your lap, depending on the situation.
  • Don’t fiddle with pens, paper, your phone, etc. 
  • Don’t scratch or touch your hair, face, etc.

Gesture Without Offending

Hand gestures also emphasize the scope and depth of what you are talking about.  A wide sweep of the hand emphasizes a broader scope, whereas a slight sweep emphasizes important, but differential depth.  Hands are as much a part of our message as words are.  

When speaking with your hands, avoid: 

  • Pointing your finger directly at someone.
  • Putting your hands in your pockets.
  • Using a hand gesture that may have negative meaning in another culture (the "ok", thumbs-up, or peace signs).

Your hands are most visible to others for a reason.  They make someone feel comfortable (a hand extended in greeting) or threatened (hands extended in a grabbing or choking motion).

We are constantly "read" by other people all the time, and our hands are a crucial part of this communication.

Ensure that your hand placement is friendly and welcoming.  And that your gestures are providing messages that parallel your words.

You'll find your conversations and presentations more engaging and meaningful.

You can learn more about the science of hand placement and gesturing in this video.  Enjoy!

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